Web portals like Japan Online are good places to get background on the language. Many have teaching aids that help with learning the kana and kanji, in addition to links to language schools and tutors.
Japanese language schools
After familiarizing yourself with these resources, you will probably want to find a Japanese language school. There are language schools all over Japan, and many operate on terms just like other schools. Term-based language schools often run three terms per year, and some can fill up fast, so try not to wait until the last minute to register.
There is an accreditation program run by the Association for Promotion of Japanese Language Education (APJLE) that determines whether or not schools are allowed to teach foreigners studying on student visas. If at all possible, you should study at a school accredited by the APJLE.
Organizations such as Berlitz and Human Academy also offer language courses in Japan.
Listings for major language schools can be found in newspapers such as the Japan Times. Don´t forget to check in your home country for Japanese language classes, either. Learning some of the language before you leave will be a big help once you arrive in Japan.
University classes for learning Japanese
Most Japanese universities offer language classes to enrolled students, though it is unlikely that you will be able to attend if you are not a student at the given university. This option is excellent if you are a student, however, especially since the cost of the course will probably be covered by your tuition.
In addition to language classes, many Japanese universities sponsor study abroad programs for foreign students interested in learning Japanese. These programs vary in length, and students with a serious interest in Japan should try and participate at some point during their studies.
Japanese language exchange
You may be able to find Japanese speakers online who will meet in person or through a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) such as Skype to help you practice your Japanese. In these situations, they will usually help you with Japanese if you help them practice your own language. Meeting in person for coffee or a light meal is an even better option if you are already in Japan. This way, you will be able to experience some culture with a fluent speaker.
Language exchanges usually require a basic amount of language ability, however, and are generally better for practising speaking and learning new vocabulary than learning the entire language and its grammar.
Books and CDs
Print and audio resources for learning Japanese are common in major book stores both in Japan and abroad. Pocket phrase books and dictionaries are must-haves, but it is much better to buy them once you arrive in Japan. Indeed, all carry electronic dictionaries (the price varies according to how new it is and which language it is coupled with – English dictionaries are much cheaper than the French, German or Spanish ones) which make it much easier to look up words. It is recommended to purchase one with a screen to draw the kanji on them, as they are highly intuitive and you no longer need to know how to pronounce the word to look it up. Paper dictionaries are nearly useless to foreigners, as they are organised in a different manner for Japanese: you need to know the radical of the kanji to be able to look it up, or at least its pronunciation.
If you are not fluent in Japanese, keep your phrase book and dictionary with you at all times. While this may seem uncomfortable or awkward at first, you will be glad to have them the first time you walk into a Japanese supermarket.
“At all times” includes social events as well. Don´t be embarrassed. You may find curious Japanese friends paging through it to find words in your language!
Audio CDs are great resources that allow you to develop an “ear” for the language. They will also help you practice your pronunciation. Like dictionaries and phrase books, however, they are no substitute for professional language classes.
Once you know a few words, start exposing yourself to Japanese in all its forms. Watch Japanese movies (in Japanese, with subtitles if necessary, although it is unlikely that you will be able to identify the kanji fast enough), and read Japanese manga (as they not only provide furigana on top of all kanji, thus making it easy to learn new words, but also you can follow the story with the pictures). Test yourself on the way to school or work by seeing if you can read all the signs. If you ride a train to work or school, see if you can understand other people´s conversations.
Whenever you are ordering food or shopping, try to do as much of it as possible in Japanese. Don´t worry about making mistakes, the Japanese staff will appreciate you learning the language.
By hearing and speaking as much Japanese as possible, you will greatly accelerate the learning process!
People in Japan are especially impressed by any foreigner who attempts to learn their language, and will do everything they can in order to help you. Furthermore, the Japanese are known for their kindness and endless patience, so they will sit through hours of you babbling words and actually enjoy it! They are especially eager to make Western (read “white”) friends, as it looks so cool, and many will come up to you to introduce themselves (a huge step if you consider how shy they normally are).